Scientists and spiritualists have long been fascinated by the power of gratitude and its importance in our lives, especially how it affects our mental health and overall perspective. Frequently acknowledging the good in your life is different than forced positivity—and much more powerful.
The American Psychological Association (APA) indicates that gratitude is “a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit (e.g., a present, favor) given by someone or a fortunate happenstance (e.g., a beautiful day).” That’s right—something as simple as pausing for a moment to recognize and be thankful for a beautiful day can make you happier.
The APA also noted results from a 2019 study that suggest that “from childhood to old age, a wide array of psychological, physical, and relational benefits are associated with gratitude. Gratitude has been shown to contribute not only to an increase in happiness, health, and other desirable life outcomes but also to a decrease in negative affect and problematic functioning.” Anyone, at any time, can experience moments of gratitude in ways that are most meaningful to them.
According to Harvard Medical School, gratitude helps people “recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals—whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” In other words, practicing gratitude is a spiritual practice and uniquely individual.
Benefits of Cultivating Gratitude
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley has an entire research department dedicated to the study of gratitude. Known as Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, it’s published many articles about the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual merits of gratitude, such as:
- It helps people experience higher levels of joy, pleasure, and overall happiness.
- It improves connections with others.
- It reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- It makes it easier to cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and might also reduce suicidal thoughts.
- It frequently helps quiet the mind and enable better sleep.
- It might be a method to reduce chronic pain symptoms and intense fatigue.
- It fosters stronger immunity.
- It can be a resourceful coping mechanism for cravings, stress, and triggers in addiction recovery.
- It may enhance mental health support tools such as faith, meditation, and spirituality.
Why Does Gratitude Work?
PositivePsychology.com cites numerous neurological studies that break it down to one simple fact: your brain is always on the lookout for problems and threats in order to help you react effectively and avoid harm. This primitive defense setting is in your brain’s limbic system, which regulates emotional experiences. As a result, the amygdala, which is part of this system, focuses on negative thoughts and feelings approximately ten times more than positive ones.
However, research also indicates that expressing gratitude causes our brain to release dopamine and serotonin, the two so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitters that “enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.” Further, if you practice gratitude daily, these particular neural pathways actually become stronger, which in turn alters your perspective and overall well-being.
You might be familiar with the term neuroplasticity, which the National Library of Medicine defines as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.” So when we learn something new or practice a healthful habit regularly, we form additional neural connections—essentially rewiring our brains.
Methods for Expressing Gratitude
Here are just a few ways to invite more gratitude into your life and make it part of your daily routines to develop a more healthful mindset.
- Write thank-you letters. Displaying gratitude toward someone reminds you of valuable connections. If you have the ability to visit someone and thank them in person, all the better!
- Keep a gratitude journal. Instead of scribbling out all your negative thoughts whenever you journal, encourage your amygdala to simmer down by writing what you’re thankful for each day and why.
- Be kind to yourself. Negative thoughts and emotions can do a number on our psyche, so become more mindful about using affirming language, and show appreciation for yourself in healthy ways.
- Take a gratitude walk. Steady movement and gratitude are best friends, especially when you’re feeling anxious or blue. Practice daily gratitude walks—even ten minutes makes a difference—where you help your brain and body relax as you reflect on a few things you’re grateful for.
Become Your Best Self at Cottonwood Tucson
As a premier behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment center in Arizona, Cottonwood Tucson features experienced clinicians who strive to offer each individual in our care progressive solutions for their health. Sometimes it’s this exposure to new ideas and methods that makes all the difference. Ask how we can help you or someone you love cultivate long-lasting wellness and live life with more purpose.